The Real Reason America Doesn’t Have Gun Control
The basic rules of American democracy provide a veto over national policy to a minority of the states.
After each of the repeated mass shootings that now provide a tragic backbeat to American life, the same doomed dance of legislation quickly begins. As the outraged demands for action are inevitably derailed in Congress, disappointed gun-control advocates, and perplexed ordinary citizens, point their fingers at the influence of the National Rifle Association or the intransigent opposition of congressional Republicans. Those are both legitimate factors, but the stalemate over gun-control legislation since Bill Clinton’s first presidential term ultimately rests on a much deeper problem: the growing crisis of majority rule in American politics.
Polls are clear that while Americans don’t believe gun control would solve all of the problems associated with gun violence, a commanding majority supports the central priorities of gun-control advocates, including universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, it’s highly unlikely that the massacre of at least 19 schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday, or President Joe Biden’s emotional plea for action last night, will result in legislative action.
That’s because gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule—the filibuster—that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans.
The disproportionate influence of small states has come to shape the competition for national power in America. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party had done since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Yet Republicans have controlled the White House after three of those elections instead of one, twice winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. The Senate imbalance has been even more striking. According to calculations by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political-reform program at New America, a center-left think tank, Senate Republicans have represented a majority of the U.S. population for only two years since 1980, if you assign half of each state’s population to each of its senators. But largely because of its commanding hold on smaller states, the GOP has controlled the Senate majority for 22 of those 42 years.
The practical implications of these imbalances were dramatized by the last full-scale Senate debate over gun control. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, the Senate in 2013 voted on a measure backed by President Barack Obama to impose background checks on all gun sales. Again assigning half of each state’s population to each of its senators, the 54 senators who supported the bill (plus then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who opposed it only for procedural reasons) represented 194 million Americans. The remaining senators who opposed the bill represented 118 million people. But because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires the backing of 60 senators to move legislation to a vote, the 118 million prevailed.
The outcome likely would not differ today. Last year, the House passed legislation to expand and strengthen background checks. But it, too, has been blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
That impassable opposition reflects the GOP’s reliance on the places and voters most deeply devoted to gun culture. Polling last year by the Pew Research Center found that the share of Republicans who live in a household with a gun (54 percent) far exceeds the share of Democrats who do (31 percent). (In all, Pew found that four in 10 adults live in a house with a gun and only three in 10 own one.) A 2020 Rand Corporation study found that the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers (32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election (17 of 25). In an almost mirror image, the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Democratic lawmakers (also 32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states Biden won (16 of 25). The 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership have more than two and half times as many residents (about 192 million) as the states with the highest gun-ownership rates (about 69 million). But in the Senate, these two sets of states carry equal weight.
In their opposition to gun control, Republicans in Congress clearly are prioritizing the sentiments of gun owners in their party over any other perspective, even that of other Republican voters. The Pew polling found that significant majorities of Americans support background checks (81 percent), an assault-weapons ban (63 percent), and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (64 percent); a majority also opposes concealed carry of weapons without a permit. Majorities of Republicans who don’t own guns shared those opinions, as did Democratic gun owners, by even more lopsided margins. Even most Republicans who do own guns said in the polling that they support background checks and oppose permitless concealed carry (which more red states, including Texas, are authorizing). Despite all of this, Republican elected officials, in their near-lockstep opposition to gun control, have bent to groups like the NRA in equating almost any restrictions as a sign of disrespect to the values of red America.
Even though the NRA has weakened institutionally, its influence inside the GOP has been magnified by the reconfiguration of American politics along geographic lines. When Congress, during Clinton’s first term, created the national background-check system through the Brady Bill and later approved a ban on assault weapons (which has since expired), significant numbers of congressional Democrats representing rural constituencies opposed the legislation, while significant numbers of Republicans with big suburban constituencies supported it. But three decades of electoral re-sorting has significantly shrunk both of those groups. As a result, when the House passed its universal-background-check bill in 2021, only eight Republicans voted for it, while just a single Democrat voted against it.
The Senate’s small-state bias is impeding legislative action on other issues on which Americans broadly agree, including climate change, abortion, and immigration. As with gun control, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support acting on climate change, oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, and back comprehensive immigration reform, including offering legal status to undocumented immigrants (especially young people brought into the country by their parents). The House has passed legislation reflecting each of those perspectives. The Senate’s inaction on these issues again reflects the outsize influence of those states with the highest gun-ownership rates—which also tend to be those enmeshed in the fossil-fuel economy, with high shares of culturally conservative white Christians and low shares of immigrants.
If there is any hope for congressional action on gun control in the aftermath of the Uvalde tragedy—or another mass shooting in the future—it almost certainly will require reform or elimination of the filibuster. Otherwise, the basic rules of American politics will continue to allow Republicans to impose their priorities even when a clear majority of Americans disagree. The hard truth is that there’s no way to confront America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence without first addressing its systemic erosion of majority rule.